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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

“leaning in” – thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg and her “manifesto”

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“The reasonable (hu)man adapts him(her)self to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to him(her)self.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable (hu)man” – George Bernard Shaw

“I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased rules and expectations” – Sheryl Sandberg

I’ve been trying to get my head around what I think about Lean In.  It’s a book that has polarised many from those recommending that every women in business reads it, to those who see Sheryl Sandberg as advocating to play the games inside the structure and then try and change it from within.

To be honest, I have a paradoxal view of this book.  Firstly, I actually really like her as I read this.  I like her openness and vulnerability around the insecurities she has felt and her own personal experiences.  I am a big believer in stories as a communication tool and to read business books that incorporate personal stories really resonate with me. It’s an compelling read as well; I’ve sat down to read just a couple of pages and half an hour later realised I am still sitting on the couch and now half way through the book.  It is well-researched and the studies she refers to are completely relevant and scare me to realise we are still at such a stage of gender bias within business.  And there is some great advice around things like owning your experience and worth and stepping up to the table instead of hanging back around the sidelines.

And as someone who has spent a number of years in large corporates, I get her advice and how meaningful this would be for women looking to build careers within the corporate structure.  I like how she talks about the “feeling like a fraud” and how hard we judge our performance and let this sense of lack of self-worth impact our decisions about going for promotions and even deciding what we are capable of doing. (Well I don’t actually like that this is the case, but this resonated with me and my experiences and those of other women that I have spoken with about this topic).

One of the studies that Sheryl refers to in her book is a study done at the Columbia Business School where an experiment was run to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.  They used a case study about an entrepreneur who became a successful venture capitalist by using his/her “outgoing personality….. and vast personal and professional network”.  Half the students were given this case study with the name Howard, the other with the name Heidi.  The students ranked both Heidi and Howard as equally competent which makes sense given it was the same data.  However, they saw Howard as being more “appealing and likable” whereas Heidi was seen as “selfish and not the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.  So basically, success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.  To go right down to the basics, if a woman is successful she is less likely to be liked by both men and women.

And that’s a bit of an issue for us of the female gender who have pretty much been trained and socialised to be likable and agreeable our whole lives.  There are stacks of research that shows how this starts in early childhood, how even the best intentioned parents still parent their children through lens of gender bias.  So as Sheryl states “In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements  especially in the presence of others.  We put ourselves down before others can.”

So the paradox for me.  Well, basically her quote at the top sums it up for me.  I get what she is saying, that we need to work with the system to get to the positions that then have the power to change things.  But part of me still feels like these systems are wrong, these gender biases are hurting the potential fulfillment of generations of women.  It reminds me of studying Women’s Studies at university when we discussed the liberal feminists who wanted to change things from within, whereas the radical feminists were all about pulling down the patriarchal structures, making an outcry that couldn’t be ignored.

And it is the radical feminists that probably made such a fuss that has caused the improvements in gender equality in the workplace over the past 40 years.   Yet, our global business structure is still geared to reward and promote the “masculine” characteristics of business and this is still pervasive and impacts us today from the small percentage of women who reach the “top” jobs through to the fact that we earn less.  And in 2011 a Mckinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past achievement.

The other area that interests me which she doesn’t really cover is around how self-employment is creating new opportunities for women outside the corporate structure.  There are options to step outside and create a career and work-life that doesn’t rely on “playing the game”.  Recent research is starting to take note of how women entrepreneurs are changing what opportunities and options can look like.  A recent white paper from Barclays states that “In entrepreneurship, the pay gap is reversed, which suggests that women will tend to achieve greater financial success in an environment that is purely market-driven, rather than a more traditional job in which pay must be negotiated.”.

So, for me it was worth reading.  I take the approach that if I can get 2 things out of a book that I can implement to make a positive change to my life, then it’s worth it.  And I definitely got that.

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